Two weeks ago I wrote a letter to the Commissioner of Racing for USAT and the Director of Athlete and Information Services at IRONMAN about my experience at Ironman Texas. I got no response. I followed up. Radio silence.
My intent to share this letter is not to garner sympathy. I’m doing fine right now (I am very lucky). But rather, it is to show the complete disregard these organizing bodies have for the safety and integrity of our sport, as well as the lack of accountability. And that, I feel, is the real tragedy.
[note: pics not originally included in the email]
I hope that this letter finds you well. I would love to share with you my account of what transpired in The Woodlands this past weekend at Ironman Texas. In my 13 years of racing the sport of triathlon, I have never crashed in a race, nor have I ever felt unsafe in a race until last weekend.
First off, I am a USAT Level I coach and have coached athletes to finish lines of almost every distance including Ironman. I’m also in my first year of grad school pursuing my Doctor of Physical Therapy. The past 8 months have required meticulous time management skills to do well in school while fitting in the required time to train for Ironman Texas.
The view of my ‘finish line’ on Saturday was one of an MD in the medical tent evaluating me for a mild traumatic brain injury. The view inside the main med tent is never the one you want to see at the end of your race.
Rewind to about 30 miles into the bike leg where I started to notice athletes coming back on the other side of Hardy Toll road, in huge pelotons, even some of the professionals. I was shocked and angry. Then a huge peloton came up on me from behind easily going 3 mph faster, riding 5-6 riders across the road, and boxed me in so I couldn’t escape. I eventually was able to drop back and distance myself the group (after yelling at other riders to let me move out of the way). This happened about 3 or 4 times. The entire race I had to be on my guard. It was stressful.
Around mile 60 on the bike course, another peloton blocked me in and then an athlete in front of me lost control of his bike and went down and I couldn’t react fast enough and also went down (along with 2 or 3 others). I smacked my head on the asphalt pretty hard going 25 mph and everything went blurry. It took about a minute for the double vision to go away as I lay in the middle of the road still clipped into my bike, trying to figure out what just happened. I was eventually able to get up and tried to assess my body and bike. My head was throbbing and I had blood all over my arm and hip. My bike had a screwed up front wheel and broken brake lever. Fortunately a few minutes later, tech support on a moto came riding towards me and he was able to help fix my bike. I remember crying to him that I thought I had a concussion and I didn’t know if I’d be able to finish the race. He asked me if I knew what day it was and I answered correctly so he let me go and told me to be very careful.
Almost everyone on the course was riding in huge groups that day, even the pros. If you were not, you were in the minority. I was so angry for most of the bike, watching athletes coast on someone else’s wheel easily going 25 mph. I called them out. I got nasty replies back, including a “F*@# you!” from Zoe Bello, the girl who would end up taking first and a Kona slot in the 18-24 age group. She stuck out to quite a few of us out there because she was constantly jumping on everyone’s wheel with no remorse. I didn’t see a single race marshal or ANYONE in the penalty tents all day. For a North American Championship race, it’s absolutely unacceptable. I tried to avoid these groups as much as possible because, first and foremost, it was ILLEGAL. But second, I know a lot of these athletes don’t have great bike handling skills. But this particular peloton literally enveloped me from behind and I couldn’t go anywhere. And then it happened in a split second.
I decided to try to finish the remaining 50 miles of the bike and I spent the next 2.5 hours trying to fight an outflow of tears at what had happened. I had made such a concerted effort to race clean and honest only to end up the victim of someone else’s poor, selfish decisions.
My headache got worse and I only made it about 4 miles into the run before I started getting dizzy and nauseous and the medical staff said I had a concussion and I should to be sent to the main medical tent to be evaluated. After working in a hospital Neuro ICU last year, I take head injuries seriously, so I listened. Although disappointing, it was an easy decision because the risk just wasn’t worth it. My first ever DNF. In 13 years.
I race bikes outside of triathlon. There is a reason why time trial bikes should never be ridden in groups. Not only is it illegal in race situations but, due to inaccessibility of brakes and decreased stability and control, it is incredibly dangerous.
It is going to take me some time to recover from this concussion and to let the superficial wounds heal. I am pretty upset about my money wasted on trying to make this great race and possibly a Kona qualifier. Ironman races are very expensive. I don’t have a disposable income so I have to pick and choose my races very carefully. I used some of my grad student loans and even some of my savings for Ironman Texas because I have big dreams and I work hard and make sacrifices to reach them.
However, I’m not sure what’s more contemptible – triathletes who blatantly draft, or an organization that charges top dollar to put on a safe and fair race, and then fails to enforce the rules and blatantly ignores the cheating.
I’m furious at and disappointed with Ironman for not putting athlete safety first. My second lap of the bike course almost felt like a war zone, with ambulance after ambulance zooming by. I remember riding over fresh blood still on the road from a crash that had been cleared up just moments before. A little traumatizing. This is not what I signed up for. This is not what I paid for.
A friend was tracking seven people at Ironman Texas. Three of them (including me) crashed on bike course, resulting in a DNF. An easy solution would be to simply start enforcing the rules with higher penalties. But for some reason, Ironman seems incapable of doing that. Maybe it’s time for a Bike Safe initiative to complement the SwimSmart program Ironman made. IM bike courses have simply become too crowded… and with too much blatant drafting and not enough officials enforcing the rules… they are dangerous to ride. Actually, Ironman should limit the number of participants entering these races. It’s not that hard if you prioritize athlete safety over $$.
Drafters cheat honest athletes by getting an unfair advantage and skewing the results, and in this case injuring multiple other riders, including myself. My day ended in the medical tent getting treated for a concussion instead of crossing the finish line, so we can’t sit here and pretend that the drafters are only cheating themselves.
So these are just a few of my ideas on how Ironman can improve. Will they consider any of these? Probably not. But I’ll continue to do my part to enforce clean and honest racing. I also put my support behind the Clean Sport Collective, which aims to end doping and restore integrity to the sport. Drafting isn’t necessarily doping, but it is just as dishonest if you voluntarily, by your own will, choose to partake.
So with that, I urge all of you to also support and stand up for the pursuit of clean and fair sport, and to hold accountable those who chose to cheat.
Thank you to everyone’s kind words after the race. Even though I wasn’t supposed to be looking at my phone or computer screen, you all made me smile. I’m sad I didn’t get to do what I came to The Woodlands to do. But I’m lucky to get back on my bike and not end up in the hospital. I’m incredibly thankful to have the support of Coeur Sports through this. Kebby and Hailey always seem to find the positives during trying times ❤ Serious shoutout to my incredible sister and race sherpa Rachel for all your support and help that weekend! And I’m extra thankful for my husband Olof, who dropped out of his race halfway through the run when Rachel told him I had crashed and was in the med tent.
So yes, my friends and family. Things to smile about. And some wise words from Maya Angelou:
‘You may encounter many defeats but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter those defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can ride from, how you can still come out of it.’
Stay safe out there, friends. Race clean. Race honest.